High Life—Makeshift
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A new model for affordable housing takes root in downtown Rio

— High Life

07. Crowds Dispatches
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Amid Rio de Janeiro’s web of gentrification, Roberto Santos has moved in an unusual direction—from the city’s peripheries to its more expensive downtown. Santos, 46, grew up in Penha, a favela in Rio’s North Zone. Seven years ago, under a friend’s advice, he began occupying Rio’s central port area. Now, he’s preparing to move nearby to a four-story, 116-unit apartment building complete with three plazas, green space, handicapped access, and a co-op governance style.

Construction on the building—named Quilombo da Gamboa in homage to Rio’s historic escaped-slave colonies—will begin next year on the site of abandoned government buildings, a warehouse, and a parking lot. It’s part of a BRL 8 billion (USD 3.4 billion) revitalization of the surrounding port zone. Driven by neighborhood groups in partnership with housing organizations like the Union for Popular Housing, Quilombo da Gamboa marks a rare example of subsidized housing slated for the area. The main goal: creating living spaces for the large numbers who can’t afford Rio’s increasing rents.

Planners, NGOs, and social movements in Rio say the existence of hundreds of abandoned buildings in the Port, plus its proximity to work and other resources, make it a natural location for new affordable housing. Most of these projects currently lie in Rio’s West Zone, where commute times to employment districts can run over two hours. The Quilombo da Gamboa solution: build upward in existing central lots rather than tack affordable housing onto the edges of urban sprawl.

“Keeping housing accessible here is also about preserving the area’s heritage,” says Santos, noting the nearby home of Rio’s first favela, the ruins of its busiest slave-trading port, and local cradles of Brazilian cultural staples, samba and capoeira.

Progress is pegged to the guidelines of the federal program Minha Casa, Minha Vida-Entidades (“My House, My Life-Entities”), which offers financing assistance to self-organized projects but churns along at a bureaucratic crawl. These projects are offered the unique ability to choose their own contractors. Several, like Gamboa, have been developed through human rights foundation Bento Rubião, which offers legal assistance and identifies architects that prioritize people-centered design at low rates.

Thanks to community support, construction for Quilombo da Gamboa will begin next year—six years after the government first granted co-op status. Along the way, families had to attend two-thirds of planning meetings or lose their spots. For those not willing to take such an active role in community development, the wait list is so long that 100 of its families are now establishing their own co-op.

Gamboa project coordinator and future resident Josilene Lima says the project has required constant participation not only internally on design decisions but also externally, liaising with the federal government and financiers. “It’s worth it,” says Lima, a 38-year old nanny who used to live in Rio’s West Zone. “We’re proving that if you work together with people, there are ways to design a better life.”

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